Cony starting pitcher Bobby Stolt delivers during a June 2 game against Gardiner in Gardiner. Stolt said he’s noticed that coaches have approached pitch counts more conservatively this season. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The Cony baseball team was facing a time crunch. Team shutdowns due to COVID-19 protocols — first for a week and a half in April, then for two weeks in May — had forced the Rams to play eight games in 13 days. That had coach Don Plourde scrambling to find a way to get his team — and his pitching staff in particular — through the stretch.

“We were sitting there Friday (May 21) going ‘If we do this today, what do we do Saturday? How does this impact us on Monday and Wednesday?'” Plourde said. “Absolutely, it’s forcing you to think more out of the box and think about the big picture.”

Plourde and Cony are hardly alone. As the playoffs arrive, baseball teams are turning the page from regular seasons in which they had to navigate unusual circumstances with their pitching staffs. They had to go easy on pitch counts. Or they had to expand the amount of pitchers they used. Or they had to deal with quarantines or shutdowns that threw the operation out of order.

In many cases, it was all of the above.

“(This season) has been unique in a lot of ways,” said Erskine coach Scott Ballard, whose team hosts Gardiner on Tuesday in a Class B South prelim game. “These kids hadn’t played much baseball for two years. It did affect things early on, for sure. The pitch counts were a little bit lower, and we kept a few extra arms.”

The Maine Principals’ Association limits pitchers with no days of rest to 20 pitches, one day to 40, two days to 65, three days to 95 and four or more to 110.

Ballard’s Eagles had no varsity experience returning on the mound, and they had to spend the week of March 22 — when pitchers and catchers could work out — in quarantine. Without the chance to both gauge what he had for pitchers and ramp them up physically, Ballard used the start of the season to throw as many pitchers as possible, a tactic encouraged by the open playoff tournament.

Cony baseball coach Don Plourde speaks with an umpire during a June 2 game against Gardiner in Gardiner. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“We were very cautious with our pitchers early on,” he said. “A lot of the early season games felt like preseason. … We decided to kind of figure it out on the fly.”

Lawrence coach Rusty Mercier, who went into the spring with only one pitcher with varsity experience in Hayden Lee, likewise used the start of the season as a trial period to find out who could handle varsity innings.

“We started from square one and we threw three different guys on those dates and kept the pitch count down,” said Mercier, who estimated that he normally uses four to five pitchers per season but has used seven this spring. “We were around 75; we didn’t really stretch anyone out.”

Mercier said he chose to keep his pitchers’ counts low so he could build depth in the staff.

“Early in the year, it was trying to figure out … who were going to be our pitchers,” he said. “Knowing we were going to be in the playoffs, I used the early regular season to look at as many guys as possible. But with that, guys were developing their arm strength, we were starting to stretch guys out. But we pushed less to do that. We used more time to do that.”

At Maranacook, bad luck hit coach Eric Brown’s team right away. The Black Bears missed nearly a month from late March to late April and Brown couldn’t push his pitchers the way he normally would, even limiting them to one start per week.

“We couldn’t work up pitch counts in bullpens. That’s the key right there,” he said. “We had to treat the first week, almost two weeks, sort of like preseason, not letting guys go more than a certain amount of pitches.”

Brown said his team didn’t start to feel caught up until the third week of May. Like Mercier at Lawrence, he said the open tournament took the pressure off as he looked for ways to chew up innings while his pitchers built their strength.

Gardiner pitcher Darien Jamison delivers during a June 2 game against Cony in Gardiner. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“We’ve had some big pitchers pitching for us the last couple of years that we played,” Brown said. “We weren’t real dependent on having to have a large pitching staff, whereas this year, we’re more dependent on having a large pitching staff.”

Plourde said that’s been the case at Cony as well, particularly when faced with the prospect of four games in a week or three in four days.

“What we’ve kind of done differently is it’s almost like the season’s been (what) you would do in preseason,” he said. “You just pitch a lot more guys in games. Instead of having guys go 90, 110 pitches, guys are getting more 50 and 60, two or three guys a game. I guess that’s kind of where it’s changed.”

One of Plourde’s top pitchers, senior Bobby Stolt, said he noticed that coaches approached pitch counts more conservatively this season.

“It definitely feels like it’s been a shorter leash,” he said. “We’ve had some games where we had like four or five pitchers throw, and each of them just threw 25, 30 pitches, just to control pitch counts when we’re playing day after day after day.”

Cony had COVID-19 cases on the team this spring, which made the situation even more challenging.

“We had a week-and-a-half to two-week down period where nobody was able to do anything. Some guys were getting out and throwing, but not everybody, because they had to stay in quarantine or they were actually really sick,” Stolt said. “Some guys who hadn’t thrown in two weeks and they had COVID-19, they go out and they throw 40 pitches and they feel like they’re dead, all their energy’s been drained.”

Gardiner pitcher Noah Reed delivers a pitch during a June 2 game against Cony in Gardiner. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Ballard said that even for pitchers who didn’t get sick, just missing time as a close contact was disruptive enough.

“We’ve had kids that pitch that have had to quarantine,” he said. “That brings up the other issue of when they come off quarantine, which is usually 10 to 14 days or so, do you just throw them back in? … Are they ready? Are they mentally ready? Are they physically ready?”

COVID-19 case numbers are in decline across the state, but teams know they’re not safe yet. Skowhegan coach Mike LeBlanc had no varsity pitchers returning this season, but found a strong trio in Cam Green, Sam Voter and Jackson Quinn, and the River Hawks haven’t had to shut down this season.

He’s hoping that luck doesn’t run out.

“(The worry is) not knowing when you’re going to get that email saying ‘Hey, look. This kid’s in quarantine, he can’t play,'” LeBlanc said. “I’m not going to say day by day or hour by hour, but you never know when you’re going to get that email.”

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